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A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF THE INTERSESSIONAL WORKING GROUP

Much of the political momentum and energy produced by the UNCED process, one notable for its success as a global media event that helped to stimulate an unprecedented level of public awareness, has since been channeled into a proliferation of institutional responses. Success must therefore be measured along a number of axes: the appropriateness, authority, resourcing and effectiveness of the new institutions, conventions and accompanying intergovernmental and interagency activity UNCED has helped to engender; secondly, in a somewhat paradoxical fashion, there must be an "outsider" perspective that constantly guards against the easy assumption that the institutional array is equal to the task in hand. The outsider perspective, perhaps best captured in the views of the most able NGOs, recognizes the absolute limits of intergovernmental-sponsored processes, limits all too obvious given the bleak reading in UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook report (1997), which announces that "internationally and nationally, the funds and the political will remain insufficient to halt further global environmental degradation and to address the most pressing issues." The dilemma was underlined by a senior delegate from the G-77 who was prepared to concede that intergovernmental processes are, by virtue of their reliance on consensus-building, always less efficient than those at the national level. The same rigorous standards cannot be applied to both.

So we have the somewhat curious situation of potentially more efficient governments gathering at the UN to draw on the outcomes of intergovernmental processes that by their very nature fail to deliver on their promises. These limitations have become all the more stark in the five years since UNCED as processes of "globalization" and international trade liberalization accelerate and erode the traditional scope of governmental action. One delegate observed that the CSD has done a great job in identifying and bringing on board sustainable development task managers throughout the UN system — the time has now come to do the same in the "real world." That will mean governments acknowledging that, when it comes to the sustainability agenda, they are one of a large number of partners in the implementation process, along with the private sector, research institutions, local government bodies, regional organizations, the advertising industry and the full spectrum of major groups. The following brief analysis examines how these forces and realities played out during the meeting of the Intersessional Working Group and are guiding the preparations for the United Nations General Assembly's Special Session for the review of Agenda 21 implementation.

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS ?: The Intersessional Working Group was the first step in a process that continues through CSD-5 in April and culminates in "Earth Summit+5" — the Special Session of the UN General Assembly. Inevitably there will be demands along the way to declare the process — or elements thereof — a success or failure. General Assembly President Razali Ismail provided a few of the benchmarks for measuring this success in a speech delivered at the High-Level Segment of the 19th Session of the UNEP Governing Council. He said the Special Session must become the centripetal force to move the preliminary process of strategizing and consensus-building into a fully operational and action- oriented phase. This is critical. While we are overloaded with the facts and figures of environmental degradation and concepts of sustainability, actions to realize "a common future" are not evident. He said the Special Session would be an opportunity for the UN to identify itself clearly as the organization that will not only enhance political commitment, but can translate it into tangible terms. In the very optimism of the declaration there is, of course, an admission that the UN has fallen far short of such competence until now.

Nevertheless, Amb. Razali outlined a few key areas where progress would have to be made and a number of those have been in the fore of the Working Group's debates over the past two weeks. For example, delegates from both developing and developed countries acknowledged that poverty eradication must be taken seriously, that more attention is needed to the quality and modalities of implementation, and that the requirement for ODA will not disappear and demands innovation. In debates on finance, investment, trade and technology-transfer, many delegations expressed determination to pursue new and innovative methods of engaging private sector funds, actors and responsibility for a role in building sustainability. There was hopeful talk of moving "beyond the sterile debates," notably those defined by the persistent North-South divide over striking the balance between the development and the environmental protection agendas.

WHOSE DOCUMENT?: The mandate of the CSD Working Group was to produce a 10-15 page outline paper on the proposed outcome of the Special Session. A first draft prepared by the Co-Chairs gave rise to considerable differences of opinion. Some delegations attributed the debates to questions about important distinctions between work in progress, work in need of a political kick and work yet to be undertaken. A G-77 delegate explained that, once again, the debate came down to key differences between developing and developed countries. Specifically, the views on how the draft paper should be structured reflected differing opinions on the weight to be given to sectoral and cross-sectoral issues. Developing countries were not suffering from "conference fatigue," one delegate explained. The problem was "rhetoric fatigue" caused by a perceived unwillingness on the part of industrialized countries to fully implement the developmental elements of the Rio agreements. One of the important pre-requisites for a successful Special Session would be an assurance to developing countries that the North is not only seeking an environmental protection agenda but is also serious about the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development. The developed world appeared to be more interested in sectoral issues such as climate change, biodiversity and environmental agreements.

The significance of such debates does not only stem from their content — they raise genuine questions about the possibility of making progress under the strains of persistent and fatal global inequities — but from their dogged familiarity. While the challenges posed by accelerating environmental degradation accompanied by unprecedented globalization demand more governmental innovation than ever, it can be argued that the wheels of the much vaunted intergovernmental machine are spinning idly. The requirement for a "critical analysis," also identified as a benchmark by Amb. Razali, will probably demand unprecedented vision and participation from those who spend most of their time enjoying the spectacle from afar: civil society, major groups, NGOs, the most innovative elements in the private sector, and others who, as one delegate observed, "are ready and willing to play a part." Some will not even wait to be tasked.

NGO ACCESS TO UNGASS — THE LATEST ASSESSMENT: Others must wait, of course. The question of NGO access to the UNGASS has been complicated by the fact that it has coincided with high-level discussions on the issue at the Sub-Group on NGOs of the Open-Ended High-Level Working Group on the Strengthening of the UN System. While access to the Special Session seems all but assured, some States are thought to be resisting NGO demands for an enhanced participatory role that might one day usher NGOs to the doors of the Security Council.

The CSD is a Commission of the ECOSOC, one of the six primary bodies of the UN, which enjoys the authority to provide for consultative relations with NGOs. NGO participation in the functioning commissions and world conferences has generally exceeded the formally agreed provisions. Problems have arisen partly because the review of Agenda 21 implementation is being held as a Special Session of the General Assembly, which has maintained a formal silence on questions of participation but, in practice, has developed unwritten rules that provide for NGO access to its meetings and those of its committees. Holding the review as a Special Session has changed the political climate of the debate. At the General Assembly last year, the US blocked a proposal to allow NGO access to the Special Session on a par with ECOSOC practices, and in November the Second Committee failed to agree a resolution on NGO participation. NGOs believe that the US and others fear the consequences of breaking their silence and setting a dangerous precedent.

The General Assembly resolved the problem by handing responsibility for the modalities of NGO participation at the UNGASS to Amb. Razali who, crucially, is very supportive of NGO participation and has indicated that he will treat the Special Session like any other UN conference and soon begin consultations with delegations on the modalities. Fears remain that Amb. Razali’s efforts may yet be ambushed due to politically charged debates on NGO access that are taking place under the aegis of a Sub-Group of the Working Group on Strengthening the UN System.

BEYOND UNCED: Moving beyond UNCED will probably entail moving beyond traditional expectations of what governments and intergovernmental organizations can do on their own. One of the Co-Chairs of the Intersessional Working Group was an NGO representative from the UK. The draft text to go forward to CSD-5 for negotiation reflects the ground- breaking record of the UNCED process and the CSD in its willingness and ability to engage NGO activity and take their solutions on board. A member of the Secretariat pointed out that a number of elements in the draft probably would not survive without NGOs lobbying their home governments between now and CSD-5. The "insiders" too have come to recognize the absolute limits of traditional models of government as crisis management.

The Intersessional Working Group was punctuated by poetic interventions from the Co-Chairs. Here is one more gem on our contemporary dilemma to send delegations on their way to CSD-5: "Whether we recognize it or not, we inhabit the shoreline between discourse and silence, between decorum and howls, between the ‘business’ and the ‘madness.’ A chief consequence of this unrecognized madness is the otherwise baffling inability of societies to tackle problems on which they have strong publicly declared commitments and an abundance of relevant information."(John Maguire, Ireland)

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